Top positive review
124 people found this helpful
on February 8, 2002
'Gaudy Night,' Dorothy Sayers' penultimate novel in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, was originally intended to be the last. Unlike the rest of the series, it is Harriet Vane's tale, first and last. Lord Peter does not appear in person until the last third of the story, when he takes his place as romantic lead and solver of all things mysterious. Sayer's takes this opportunity to both reveal unexpected depths to Miss Vane's character and create a remarkable elegy of her own memories of Oxford, where she took highest honors in a world made by and meant for the male sex.
Harriet returns to Shrewsbury College to take part in the annual Gaudy night, something a bit like our own college reunions, not quite sure what to expect. While renewing her friendship with both her old classmates and instructors, she brushes against the start of a mystery when she finds some very unpleasant notes expressed a vitriolic hatred for the denizens of the college. Brushing it aside as an isolated occurrence, she returns to the festivities without realizing that she has seen is only the tip of the iceberg.
Several months later, Harriet finds herself called back to Shrewsbury by the Dean. The few isolated occurrences had become an onslaught and the school desperately needed help in resolving the problem without any adverse publicity. Miss Vane, a successful mystery writer, a survivor of a murder charge, and a friend of the esteemed Lord Peter Wimsey, seemed the ideal person to come to the aid of the Senior Common Room. The idea of a woman's college was still newfangled to Oxford and a scandal could become a major setback. What Harriet found was a steadily escalating attack on the sanity and safety of the college on apparent waged by a devious and hate filled mind.
The tale is a psychological thriller, told against the backdrop of Oxford and the University. Sayers fills the book with loving (and sometimes not so loving) details of academic life and its foibles. Her style often mimics Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and the novels of a century past, providing a comedy of manners as counterpoint to the grim tale of a mind gone awry. Distraught students and instructors alternate with appearances by Wimsey's madcap nephew and countless caricatures, one right after another.
'Gaudy Night' is a tour de force, coupling some of Sayer's finest writing with ideas that were novel and controversial when the book made it's first appearance. It is a unique story from the first disturbing note to the last surprising twist and turn in the relationship between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. And one that is very, very well told. Whether this novel or 'The Nine Tailors' is the better novel will be argued forever, but there is no question that 'Gaudy Night' is one of the best from a mystery writer who stands at the head of her class.